Life hasn’t been easy for Bounkum. With a smile he tells us that he is 60-something years of age; he hasn’t kept count of his exact years. He grew up in Salavan province, close to the Vietnamese border in the 60s. He attended primary school until year two, when it was no longer possible to continue his schooling because the war forced his family to stay on the move. The war affected more than just Bounkum’s schooling. With the Ho Chi Minh trail cutting through Salavan, cluster munitions rained down on the province with unstoppable force during the 60s and 70s. He and his younger brother were two of many who fell victim to the air strikes. His brother died and Bounkum was left with metal shrapnel in his leg. He was carried in a blanket-turned-stretcher by two individuals on foot to the only hospital in his province, approximately 60km away. This journey took days. Even today, his village is so remote that we were the first foreigners in a long time to visit Ban Donboung.
Bounkum lives with his wife, five children and seven other relatives in the house pictured above. Other family members live in huts in the rice field, as there is not simply enough space in the house. Their village, Ban Donboung, located in Toumlan district of Salavan province in southern Laos, comprises 121 families living in 89 houses. Privacy is a rarity and a privilege in this village, with multiple families living in one house without separate rooms. The children, whose parents often do not have money to provide them with clothes, play naked. The only privacy these children are afforded is a blanket to drape themselves in. Since the accident, Bounkum can no longer work long hours and feels regular aches whenever it is about to rain or the weather is too hot. These limitations come as a blow to him, as he was once the main provider for his family.
Bounkum, however, does not seem to dwell on his misfortune. You could not tell of his past from his good nature and sense of humour. He seems only to be focused on his work and looking after his family. At perhaps a stage too late in his life, his luck did turn around. Bounkum and his family were selected by a Canada-funded UNDP project as one of 30 families who would receive financial management training, animal raising training and assets well sought after for these villagers, five goats. He was selected not only because of his disability as a result of the UXO accident, but because his family is among the poorest in his district. His family, in fact, is simply one of 11 families within their village that suffered from UXO-related accidents.
All the Ban Donboung villagers belong to the Bru ethnic minority and speak Bru as their mother tongue. In Salavan province alone, there are over ten different ethnic languages spoken. For this reason, the training was conducted primarily using imagery and visual aids. Villagers with higher levels of schooling and Lao language understanding helped to translate the material for Bounkum and others. These techniques proved effective, as when asked questions about the content of the training, he easily rattles off the answers.
For Bounkum’s family, the goats are a livelihood and looking after them, a family effort. It also seems that living in a tight knit community has its benefits, as Bounkum laughs as he tells us that his neighbours don’t get angry when his goats regularly eat their grass. And despite the global pandemic, there are many traders who regularly visits his village, including mainly Vietnamese traders, who are simply waiting for the goats to grow large enough for sale.
This support is about more than just some good fortune for Bounkum and his loved ones. It’s about clothing their children and for the first time being able to plan for a future. It’s about having emergency cash if a family member falls ill. It’s about sending their children and grandchildren to school and providing them with the life that Bounkum was prevented from living.
*The Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives provided support to 30 families in Salavan province, including Bounkum and others like him, through the UNDP. The project sought to provide support to persons with disabilities, including UXO survivors and their families, to better their living conditions and to empower them through livelihood development. Five goats, animal shelter, fencing and vaccinations were provided to each family, together with financial management and animal raising training. Thank you to our partners at the NRA, LDPA and to the Salavan authorities for helping to implement this important project.
Written by: Amanda Shiel, Programme and Partnership Support Officer and Aksonethip Somvorachit, Communications Analyst, UNDP Lao PDR.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and not the United Nations Development Programme.